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Nationals fans to see fewer TV games in ‘06

- The Washington Times - Friday, February 24, 2006

The Washington Nationals and Mid-Atlantic Sports Network will sharply reduce the number of games broadcast over the air this season, leaving most fans who do not subscribe to a satellite network able to watch only 25 percent of the team's games.

Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN), which produces Nationals games, announced yesterday that it will broadcast 32 of the team's 162 regular-season contests on WDCA, down from 76 last season. Seven other games will be broadcast as a Saturday "Game of the Week" on Fox and one on ESPN.

The remaining games will be aired by DirecTV satellite service, as well as RCN Corp., Charter and Verizon FiOS cable services, which have limited reach in the Washington area.

Nationals President Tony Tavares said the reduction came largely as a result of programming conflicts on WDCA.

However, WDCA General Manager Duffy Dyer said the station would welcome more games if MASN allowed it.

"If more games were available, we'd look at that," Mr. Dyer said. "But this is what was in the contract."

The announcement angered Nationals fans, who cannot watch the club's games on Comcast Cable, the area's largest cable-service provider, because the company refuses to carry MASN.

"It's tremendously frustrating as a fan," said Colin Mills, president of the Nats Fan Club.

Mr. Mills knows the feeling firsthand: He is not permitted to have a satellite dish at his apartment in Reston.

"Not all of us can get DirecTV, and some of us can't afford it," he said. "There's a large percentage of the fan base that will be seeing fewer games than last season, which almost seems impossible. This is like something out of 1975, frankly."

Mr. Tavares downplayed the reduction in games broadcast on WDCA, saying he was more focused on getting other distributors, including Comcast, to carry MASN.

"[WDCA] is not that well-distributed," Mr. Tavares said. "I talk to fans in Virginia, and they're not getting it. I'm much more concerned about the broader distribution."

He said MASN hopes to conclude deals with two more distributors before the April 3 start of the season.

In most cities with major league teams, fans can watch nearly every game either on the air or on a channel carried by their city's predominant cable-service provider.

Most major league teams broadcast between 20 and 40 games on over-the-air channels like WDCA and the rest on a cable channel. That isn't the case in the Washington area because of a dispute between the Baltimore Orioles and Comcast over MASN and the right to broadcast Orioles games.

MASN was created by Major League Baseball (MLB) as part of a deal to compensate Orioles owner Peter Angelos for the move of the Nationals to the region. Under the agreement, the Orioles receive the bulk of MASN's revenue. The Orioles, who currently are broadcast on Comcast SportsNet, will be shown on MASN beginning with the 2007 season.

Comcast sued the Orioles last year, arguing that the team and MLB took the Orioles' television rights from Comcast SportsNet and gave them to MASN without allowing Comcast the right to match the offer.

A judge threw out the lawsuit, but Comcast still refused to carry MASN and its Nationals broadcasts. Many industry analysts say Comcast will not carry MASN unless it gets an equity share in the network.

MASN spokesman Todd Webster defended the schedule.

"It's a great package," Mr. Webster said. "All of the games are available. MASN is doing its part."

The announcement came at a difficult time for the Nationals. MLB, which owns the franchise, has refused to name a new owner for the team until a dispute with the city over a stadium lease agreement is resolved.

"We understand it's a difficult situation here now without ownership," Nationals manager Frank Robinson said. "There are different things we have no control over. We certainly would like to be exposed to a larger group of our fans in the D.C. area on TV, especially when we're on the road. But we also hope they'll come out [to RFK Stadium] when we're home. And if we play well, maybe we'll get some games added to the package before the season's over."

Mark Zuckerman contributed to this report.